Day 1—John O’Groats to Bettyhill

The road from our hotel to the JoG sign. I think

And we’re off. Rob had made a good job of assembling my bike (of course), and I had only to adjust the angle of my handlebars and pump the tyres up to 70 psi before setting off. But it was misty: I don’t think I could see much more than 50 metres, and this didn’t augur well photographically, at least.

We few, we happy few

The plan was to cycle the 600 metres to the famous sign and then to take photographs before beginning the formal element of the ride. This went smoothly. The sign was in place, and it was free of the stickers that adorned it four years ago. We bravely removed our jackets to reveal our Bike Adventures jerseys and Andy (who works with Rob) took the picture. Here are all ten of us (three dropped out through illness or injury before the start), and here too are Rob and Andy.

Rob
Andy
Dunnet Head. This is a colour photo, not that you’d know it.

I am not one for faffing, and I set off quickly, partly to keep warm and partly because I didn’t want to hold everyone up by being too slow. I followed the route, previously uploaded to my cycle computer, to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point in mainland Britain. When I visited Dunnet Head in 2018 I was quite awed by being as north as it is possible to be, but this wasn’t the case today. I was still cold, it was still misty, and there were midges, of all things! I had a quick look around, a quick chat with Andy (who had driven there in the van), and then turned round to return to the A836 and the road to Bettyhill. I met some other members of the group as I left, and heard that poor Les had had perhaps the earliest puncture ever experienced by a Bike Adventures tour, at just four miles.

This might be the point to ask why one would want to cycle from John O’Groats to Land’s End (JOGLE) having already cycled the more familiar Land’s End to John O’Groats (LEJOG) in 2018. Why not do something more exotic, especially because there’s such a high risk (especially in Scotland) of having such horrible weather? One answer is that I had booked an Alpine tour and a north-to-south tour of Portugal in 2020 and 2021, and these, of course, had been cancelled. But Rob and I agreed that travelling from B to A is not simply the reverse of travelling from A to B, even if you take the same route. In fact, they are completely different experiences. I cycle to the lab and home from it along the same roads, but I don’t imagine one route as the reverse of the other. Each gives me different views and different impressions, and they only exist as views and impressions in the context of the journey. If you gave me a photograph of Camberwell Green or of Waterloo Road near St George’s Circus, I’d be hard put to identify them, but if they’re viewed as part of a journey I’d know them immediately, but only in the context of which direction I was going.

Another way of illustrating this is to do with the feeling one has (well, the feeling I have) when travelling in an unfamiliar direction at a familiar station. For example, I quite frequently go to Herne Hill station to go to St Pancras. I take the stairs in the morning to go to platform 1, and when I return in the evening I arrive at platform 4 and walk under the track, past the stairs to platform 1, and out of the station. All I know is that on the rare occasions that I go straight to platform 4, to travel southbound rather than northbound, it feels very strange, even though I am in a completely familiar environment.

This is to say that I think JOGLE is more than just LEJOG in reverse, and I think it’ll be a different experience. We shall see!

A Highland cow

Returning to the trip…as I left Dunnet Head I photographed a Highland Cow, and then met Rob and Andy at the junction with the A836. Rob’s job, while Andy drives the van, is to remain at the back of the group, as Lanterne Rouge, but with Andy going to Dunnet Head he decided to skip this northern loop. At this point I joined up with John and Jamie, and we headed off to Thurso. I had hoped to revisit the cafe where I’d had a cheese scone four years ago, but we, and most of the gang, ended up at the Messy Nessy Playcentre, where I had a cup of coffee and should have had lunch but didn’t. I should have had lunch because it was getting on for lunchtime, but I didn’t because (i) it was a bit early and (ii) the ‘Messy’ is a playcentre and not a café: I thought we could do better. Unfortunately, the lack of food led to my ‘bonking’ later on.

We set off, and the weather improved a bit. It was still quite verdant, and we went over a bridge and then passed the Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment. I commented on Dounreay in my 2018 blog, and referred to the way in which it is being decommissioned. I now see from the Secret Scotland website that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority took ownership of the site in 2005, and the idea is that Dounreay should reach an interim state of care and surveillance by 2036, and be a brownfield site by 2336, at a total cost of £2.9 billion. Yikes!

View from a bridge
Dounreay

We carried on, and reached a great café at Halladale where I should have had lunch. But now we were only an hour and a half from Bettyhill and not too far from dinner, so I just had half a flapjack. Mistake! As we entered the final stage of the day’s ride things were getting hilly (see below), and I bonked with ten miles to go. I had a gel and an energy bar, which helped a bit, and I caught up with John and Jamie, who had stopped to admire the view, and we headed into Bettyhill together. On the way we passed a nasty-looking bike accident, worked our way around a traffic jam, and watched Jamie repair a puncture.

Then, into our rooms, wash our clothes, write our blogs, and have dinner.

I’m quite tired after the first day, so this is a short-ish entry today. I’ll end with my Strava data, as I did in 2018. First, here’s the route. We did 94.7 km with 1000 m of climbing. Cycling time was four hours 32 minutes, my average speed was 20.9 km/hr, my average power was 113 W, and I used 1822 calories.

Our route. Notice how hilly the second half is.

And finally, another view of the elevation, my speed, and my heart rate.

Until tomorrow!

Prologue—2

To Gatwick today and thence to Inverness and John O’Groats. I hadn’t been on a plane for a very long time, and my flight today was a far cry from the trips I used to do with the Wellcome Trust, where more often than not I would turn left as I entered the plane and then sip (alright, quaff) champagne and try to work out how the seat converted into a bed. No: today I was in a middle seat of an easyJet flight, masked up, and trying to make myself as small as possible lest I transgress inappropriately onto my neighbours’ armrests. At least I was in row 3, and so guaranteed of a quick exit.

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The view at take-off

Once airborne, my view from the plane (or as much of a view as I had from the middle seat) was of a land where the grass was yellow and the temperature in the mid-30s. It looked ominously like the beginning of some post-apocalyptic movie, with citizens going about their sweaty business apparently unconcerned about the future. In this film, the director would go on to depict things going wrong: it would start with hosepipe bans, then reservoirs would dry up, there’d be wildfires, crops would fail, and tempers would flare. When rain did fall there’d be horrific flash floods, people would drown, property would be destroyed and disease would spread. This is the inevitable narrative in such a film and it feels all too likely in real life. To mis-quote Philip Larkin in another context: Why aren’t we all screaming? I sometimes think of future archeologists arriving on earth from some far-distant exoplanet, wondering why the Anthropocene ended so abruptly in the middle of what we call the 21st century.

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The yellow yellow grass of home.

Sorry, that was a bit of a distraction, perhaps brought on by my guilt at being in an aeroplane, by my irritation at the state of our lawn, or simply by a general malaise after a hot and sleepless night.

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Inverness from the air

Anyway, we soon approached Inverness, where I was expecting the land to be greener than in the South. To my surprise, the view from the air wasn’t terribly different from London, but as we landed it did begin to rain, and after the drought in London I felt a little like Robert Benchley reporting back to The New Yorker from Venice: Streets full of water, please advise. It wasn’t quite that bad, of course, but it was raining and 18 degrees, which was wonderful. I had a brief panic that I hadn’t packed enough warm clothing, but 18 degrees is still pretty comfortable, so I think I’ll be OK.

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It’s raining!
Flooded road near Inverness

My bag appeared surprisingly quickly on the baggage carousel. I had just over an hour before being picked up to go to John O’Groats, so I had a toastie to tide myself over to dinner and met fellow cyclist Amardeep in the restaurant, where we compared cycling experiences, said what we do for a living, and so on. Our cycling gang was scheduled to leave the airport at 3:30, but the weather had changed suddenly for the worse. Our coach, which had picked a few people up at Inverness Station, managed to reach us at the airport, but did so in thunder and torrential rain. This also delayed the arrival of Carl and Les’s plane, which had to circle three times before landing. We managed to leave shortly after 4:00, but the flooded roads slowed our journey to John O’Groat’s, which we only managed to reach by 8:00 pm. To give a sense of the weather, Jamie Pocock made a video of part of the journey from the station to the airport. Quite a change from the drought of London.

I said in my last blog that I’d describe the unpacking and re-assembly of my bike, but Rob did the lion’s share of this work before we arrived, and I only saw my machine after dinner, at 10:00. It still needs a few adjustments, though, and I’ll describe these tomorrow. For now…bed.

JOGLE—Prologue 1

I wasn’t sure whether I was going to write a blog to accompany my ride from John O’Groats to Land’s End. I had written one during my 2018 trip in the opposite direction (which you can download here, should you be interested), but I didn’t do any typing during MizMal (Mizen Head to Malin Head) in 2019, and nor during the North Coast 500 in 2020. I think this was because MizMal was physically harder than LEJOG, and I was more tired at the end of the day. And I cycled the NC500 in a state of permanent exhaustion thanks to a couple of broken ribs, which made it too painful to sleep at night. Both were great rides, though, and I take this opportunity to show photographs of two of the greatest cycling climbs I have ever undertaken: the Mamore Gap in County Donegal and the Bealach na Bà in Wester Ross in the Scottish Highlands.

The Mamore Gap
The Bealach na Bà

But today two people asked if I was going to write a JOGLE blog, one making the (very good) point that doing so would encourage me to take more notice of my surroundings. It’s also true that writing down what happens every day makes it much easier to remember it all in the future. So this is the first of two prologues—this one describing my preparation and packing. I know this sounds boring, but be grateful that I’m not going to do any unboxing videos, or describe the best way to apply chamois cream. And in case you think I’m being facetious, I can tell you that if you Google ‘how should I apply chamois cream’ you get 5,240,000 hits. I just hope that Google doesn’t find this blog and make it 5,240,001. (If we do get to that number, and if someone should alight on this page in search of advice, I would only say “don’t double-dip”.)

I’m going with the excellent Bike Adventures again, and Dominic, who works in their office, tells me that the ride will be led by Rob, who shepherded us from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 2018. As readers of the last blog may recall, Bike Adventures make it as easy as possible to cover 1052 miles in 15 days, not least by carrying our luggage from hotel to hotel and by checking us all in before we arrive, so that all we have to do on getting to our destination is shower, eat, and sleep. And, for those so inclined, write a blog.

Bike Adventures provide us with all we need to know before we set off. Of particular importance is the route, which comes as fifteen .gpx flies that we can download to our Garmin or (as I prefer) Wahoo cycle computers. We also get instructions on how to pack our bikes, ready for transport to the start line. My correspondent Julian Hutchings—author, cyclist and YouTuber; check him out—describes in his own LEJOG book how he wasn’t keen on the Bike Adventures approach of packing one’s bike in a flimsy cardboard box, and he instead opted for a (sorry, Julian) Byzantine approach involving his mate Northern Jon and a hire car. I could see Julian’s point: I too have a £500 SciCon bike bag that I am loath not to use. However, the Bike Adventure scheme worked well for me four years ago, and I didn’t want to impose on my friends, so a cardboard box it was. Having said I won’t do any unboxing videos, my next blog will describe the re-assembly of my Mason bicycle from the cardboard box kindly donated by my local bike shop Bon Velo. Fingers crossed!

So Bike Adventures will take my bike to John O’Groats. But how do I get there? I had planned to take the train to Edinburgh on August 13th, to spend the night there, and then to take another train to Inverness on Sunday the 14th, from where Bike Adventures would drive us to John O’Groats. I booked the train tickets and reserved a very expensive room in an Edinburgh hotel (all the cheap rooms had gone—something to do with a Festival going on). However, as I entered Bon Velo to pick up my cardboard bike box, my phone pinged with the news that was to be a rail strike on August 13th. My plans were scuppered. I briefly considered renting a car and driving to Inverness, but in the end, and reluctantly, I decided to fly. Reluctantly, I should say, not because I fear flying but for sound ecological reasons. Oh well—at least I saved quite a lot of money: the flight was much cheaper than the train tickets and I didn’t have to pay for the hotel. Perhaps this will justify my ‘investing in’ a GoPro camera or something.

Bother!

I haven’t mentioned training yet, but at this point it was so far so good. I had done the Etape Loch Ness earlier in the year, I took the 100-mile RideLondon in my stride, I had circled Richmond Park so frequently that I was on nodding terms with the deer, and I had accumulated enough (ahem) XPs on Zwift that I was (ahem again) Levelling Up rather well. But then I got COVID. It was on 38 degree Monday, the day that preceded 40 degree Tuesday (that is, July 18). I cycled home from King’s Cross to Herne Hill, and although I was feeling a bit ropey it was nothing I couldn’t put down to the heat. Then, as bed-time approached and I was feeling no better, I reached for the LFTs. I was astonished. Two and a half years of negative PCRs and LFTs, and within 10 seconds of applying the fourth drop I could see a positive band. Bother. I told my son to keep away from me and retreated to my room for a week, emerging only for essentials. I wasn’t feeling too bad, but was terribly tired all the time and slightly short of breath. It was such a good job the Tour de France was on—I couldn’t concentrate on anything else.

Negative at last

It took 12 days for me to test negative, and I managed a little walking and some short rides towards the end of that time, but not much else. I was trying to weigh up the risk of losing fitness with that of delaying my recovery, and I think I was right to err on the size of caution. I take solace in the fact that the JOGLE ride is a holiday and not a race! I still feel tired three weeks after seeing that positive band, but I have managed a few rides to work, some Zwift rides, and some short runs, so I hope this will be enough!

And finally, packing. I am a precision packer. Everything fits into its place, everything is folded neatly, I have everything I need and nothing I don’t. Precision packing is particularly important for cycle tours, where there’s not much chance of buying anything you have forgotten. So for every trip I keep a detailed note of everything I’ve taken, and I use these notes as the basis for what I should take on the next one. I realise that I am setting myself up for some ridicule here, but I do think this makes sense. As a user of tubeless tyres, for example, the last thing I want to forget is the little thing that allows you to remove the core from a bicycle valve so that you can inject extra tyre sealant. You’ll be pleased to hear that I’m not going to publish the JOGLE list (unless the comments section below is particularly vociferous in this regard), largely because the number of pairs of underpants I take is, I believe, a matter for me and me alone.

So I set off on Sunday, flying to Inverness, and then (no doubt) to be photographed on Monday morning at the sign that marked the end of my LEJOG trip four years ago. I hope that time has not been too unkind, that the wind is in my favour (unlikely!), and that the succeeding two weeks will be fun. I’m sure they will be.

The end of LEJOG; the beginning of JOGLE